8:00am PT by Chris Gardner
UCLA's Viral Gymnast Katelyn Ohashi Really Just Wants to Dance ... With the Stars
Her perfect 10 at a Jan. 12 meet in Anaheim has made UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi super famous super fast, with a viral video of her floor routine getting 50 million views in a week. She's been interviewed by Ryan Seacrest and showered with praise on social media (even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gave her a shout-out). But what the 21-year-old gender studies major most wants is to appear on Dancing With the Stars. "That's one of my biggest goals!" she tells THR. "When [gymnast] Simone Biles was on it, she invited me. I just fell in love." But if DWTS doesn't work out, Ohashi has a plan B. She recently tweeted to Steve Harvey, "My brothers and I want to be on Family Feud."
Ohashi's talent and life story seems like a perfect fit for DWTS, but she's got a long list of aspirations outside of reality television. The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Ohashi to discuss her viral routine, her love of poetry, how she got past bullying and verbal abuse to find inner peace, and what personal motto means the most to her today.
What has your life been like since the big meet?
It’s been hectic. I literally have been, like, staying off of social media completely because it’s been so crazy. Most of the notifications I’m getting are from my friends taking screenshots and being like, “Oh my gosh, this person mentioned you or messaged you,” and stuff like that. That’s been insane. It’s been a little overwhelming, but I think everything is so exciting and I’m so grateful for all of it. Sometimes you have to take a step back and just breathe a little bit.
There are brands and people who spend their careers trying to make something go viral, and you’ve done it not once but twice. At what point did you know that what happened on Saturday was something special?
When I saw all these check marks in my notifications. I was like, “Whoa!” There were messages from senators and — oh! So, one of my friends, she’s actually in the office, and she messaged me and was like, “You made it to a completely political website.” I was like, that’s strange. She was like, “Not many other things happen on that website and here you are with this big article.” I thought that was really interesting and cool.
What’s the website?
It is … let me find it. It’s called The Daily Beast.
That’s great. When you make it on websites like The Daily Beast, are you reading the stories?
I think I read a little bit of that one. I haven’t even read The Huffington Post, I haven’t read that or anything else. I haven’t really had time to be on my phone period because I’ve just been running around.
Let’s talk about the athletic skill. First of all, it looks like you’re having such a blast on the mat with this routine and then you double down on some of the hardest tumbling passes. Is there a particular part of this routine that you find the most challenging?
Yeah, the split double lay is something that, one, I think it got taken out of the code of points I don’t know how long ago, so we had to resubmit that, so I’m the only one in college doing that right now. I didn’t do it the first meet because they were concerned that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. It’s not necessarily even when I compete because there’s so much extra adrenaline, but when I warm up, we don’t want to take the short landing. That one is definitely the most challenging of them all. My middle pass is impressive as well. I got inspired by my freshman year. I totally forgot I used to do that pass for a couple of meets. I was watching it with one of my friends and we looked at each other at the same time and were like, “I have to do that pass.” So, we brought it back for this year, and it’s been so much fun.
One of the things that I loved so much about watching you perform is not only seeing your skill, what you were able to pull off and your smile while doing it, but to see the joy it brings to your teammates to watch you do so well. They exploded for you. What can you say about them?
They’re amazing. Having them, like, we always do it out of love for the sport. When we go out there, it’s not just for ourselves, it’s for something bigger that is in the gym and outside the gym. We don’t just represent ourselves, we represent UCLA Gymnastics. What I’ve found is that we’re not just teammates, we’re soul sisters, best friends. Literally you have everyone you can depend on on one team. It’s really awesome to see that, one, like, there has been a lot of attention drawn to them and that’s so amazing because they are a big part of everything. They are just as incredible.
Let’s talk about the music. How do you pick what goes in the final mix?
Oh, man. Trial and error. (Laughs.) We had six people at a table together and we just kind of went through all the options and throwing out ideas. Each one, we’re like, "Ehh," or, "That’s it!" We try to pair the songs together, and if that doesn’t work then we try other things. It took, literally, like multiple tries to get to where we are today with this routine and music. It’s been quite a process.
Where do you get your music inspiration from?
Last year, the inspiration for Michael Jackson came from my mom, who is a very big fan. That was that. This year, was like, OK, how do we one-up that with meaning behind it. So all of the music was very intentional and picked because it’s music that brings joy to people. We have people who stand for stuff, and so that’s basically all that went into it.
When you say "stand for stuff," what artists are you referring to specifically?
Tina Turner. She’s such a big women empowerment body, so I think it was important that we had her in it, and every other beat is so much fun in there.
Let’s go back to Twitter. You’ve had some pretty major compliments and attention from everyone like Kamala Harris and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Rev. Jesse Jackson and Jemele Hill. Have you heard from anyone privately?
I saw a couple things on Instagram that were really cool. I haven’t checked too far in my DMs so I don’t know anything. My email — I’m horrible about checking so it’s even worse there. No, I haven’t seen anything. I’ve gotten a lot of [messages] from a lot of different backgrounds of people asking for, like, “Hey, can you send me a picture?” And that’s all they will send. Sorry, that sounded inappropriate. They’re asking for autographed pictures. (Laughs.)
Your social media followings are increasing by the day. At one point when I checked you had something like 88K followers and the next day, it was up to 125K and growing by the minute. How closely are you keeping track? [Her Twitter following is now at 146,000.]
Oh my gosh, it’s really crazy. Um, yeah, it’s funny almost. Before all this happened, I was at 24,000 so it’s gone up by over 100,000 which is just absurd. Obviously, the following is such a huge part of my generation, we’re so involved and stuff. But I can’t let it get to me or anything. I can only be grateful for all of it because it opens the door for opportunities.
That’s exactly what I was thinking — it opens the door for opportunities for you to increase your platform, which I know is really important to you. You’re not just an athlete who had a lucky routine. You have dedicated most of your life to this sport and weathered some tough physical challenges. I watched your Players Tribune clip and it was emotional to hear, in your own words, how you struggled to find your place in the sport while being bullied and verbally attacked over your weight. But to see the smile on your face now and the dominance that you showed Saturday is so uplifting. What was the turning point for you?
UCLA and [gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field] had a lot to do with that. Being encouraged to grow in other areas of my life, and that’s when I got to realize how passionate I was about things that I’ve experienced or just have a heart for. That has allowed me to find my joy within the sport, as weird as it sounds, because it all connects and it alleviates this pressure of only being an athlete and having to live up to the standards because that’s what I’m validated for. So, not having to be validated for being a “perfect gymnast” or “athlete.” Being able to have other things to fall back on and put energy into has just really allowed me to step into who I am today and enjoy the sport for what it is.
You talk a lot about joy. What brings you joy outside of the gym and outside of gymnastics?
I started getting into photography, and I shot this vision that I had for one of my poems and seeing that vision come to life literally was one of the most amazing feelings I’ve ever had. Obviously being a gymnast and doing it for 18 years and hours a day, I haven’t had much time to do a lot of other stuff so experiencing that was, I can’t explain the feeling. It's way better than going viral. It was just amazing.
Have you posted that?
Yeah, I posted a couple shots on my Instagram recently. It’s the mirrors shattering and it has to do with body image.
What’s the title of the poem?
It’s called “Your Daughter.” I haven’t posted the poem yet anywhere. But, yeah, it has to do with body image and what you would tell your daughter if you witnessed her hating herself.
Where will you post it?
That will be part of my later project that I’m not allowed to say.
Let’s talk Dancing With the Stars. I heard a rumor that you’d really love to compete. Is that true?
Oh my gosh! Yes! That is one of my biggest goals. (Laughs.)
Why so? Why that show?
It’s so funny. I am not a religious watcher of much, but when Simone was on it, she invited me out a couple times so I got to see her perform. I don’t know, I just really fell in love. I know it’s tedious and hard work too, but I love performing so much that I think it would be a great opportunity to, kind of, step out of gymnastics and still be able to perform. The facial expressions that everyone uses. Dancing is so expressive, and you can really tell the difference between each dancer. It’s really cool.
So cool. You mentioned Simone and there are many gymnasts who’ve competed there — Shawn Johnson, Laurie Hernandez, Aly Raisman, Nastia Liukin and Simone. Who was your favorite to watch?
I’m the closest with Simone and that’s the only time I got to see it live and in person. That’s why it’s so special and why she definitely stands out to me. Watching Laurie Hernandez’s videos — oh my gosh! Her facial expressions were spot-on. That made me even more inspired. That was crazy.
Speaking of Simone, you’re the last woman to beat her in a major competition. What’s your relationship like now?
We are still really, really close and I consider her one of my best friends. We talk on the phone whenever we get the chance. Hopefully I’ll get to see her this summer and I want to go visit her if I can.
You’ve got a lot to look forward to then. You’re graduating this semester. What’s your major?
Any idea what you want to do when you graduate or next steps in your career?
I have a lot of long-term goals in terms of what I want to do. In terms of how I get there, I’m not entirely sure. I feel like there are so many opportunities that are coming my way so I don’t necessarily want to settle on anything right away. I just know that I want to help people and I want to empower those around me. I would love, obviously, to do Dancing With the Stars. I want to put out a few books throughout my lifetime. And there’s more! I want to go out to New York and intern with The Players Tribune to see if that’s something I want to pursue because of the mix of journalism and creative aspects of it all. I have a lot of things.
I love that UCLA has also taken this opportunity to encourage people to come and see a gymnastics meet live. What advice would you have for someone who has never come to a meet or seen you compete?
To come to one! (Laughs.) Watching something on the TV or internet is not nearly as incredibly as it is when you see it in person. UCLA does an amazing job of making the whole entire meet engaging and fun to be at. In person is the best option if you like it that much on the internet. You’re only seeing one routine and our entire squad; the floor lineup is ridiculous this year. Not even just floor, all of our other events are just as good.
Do you feel pressure to repeat what you’ve done?
You know what? No. I’m going to take it meet by meet and second by second. As athletes you always know that mistakes happen and not everyone is perfect and you can’t be perfect. So, remembering that I’m human will alleviate any pressure that I have after all of this stuff.
You tweeted “Life is beautiful and fragile. Cherish every moment of it.” What other mottos or quotes in your life that you’re trying to live by?
There’s another one that means a lot to me and that is Miss Val’s favorite quote that she lives by, which is, “Be anxious for nothing and grateful for all things.” She means so much to me, and she heard that when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. There are so many things that we have to be grateful for, it gets so easy to get caught up with one thing that, you know, isn’t perfect or not going the way you thought it would but we always need to be grateful for what we have.
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.